The fur trade, both in the pelts of foxes and other animals, played a major role in the development of North America, and continues to be a major international economic force today. Many early Canadian settlements were established to exploit the beaver, fox, otter, and other animals. While the trade opened up much of the continent to settlement, it came at the price of disrupting Native American culture. The capturing of fur bearing animals distracted the indigenous people from their traditional hunts (such as the caribou), while increasing their dependence on the white man.
The numbers of animals taken is impressive. During a seventy year period between 1821 and 1871, a total of over five million red fox pelts (about 74,000 annually) were taken. Seventeen million pelts were taken in the former USSR between 1924 and 1958. Over the last century, an average of 100,000 arctic fox have been trapped world wide each year. My most recent figures are for the year 1969 when 30,000 red foxes were caught in Canada at an average value of $12.80/pelt. The same year, 20,000 arctic foxes were captured at $15.60/pelt. When one extrapolates these figures into modern terms and multiplies by the number of years the fur trade has existed, it doesn´t take long to get an exciting number. Nevertheless, corporate greed has frequently attempted to boost these numbers further.
Rebecca Grambo describes some of those attempts in "The Nature of Foxes". Starting in the 1830´s, some companies attempted to increase profits by establishing foxes on several Alaskan islands. This met with enough of a degree of success that by the 1920´s and ´30´s, the practice was being carried out indiscriminately. The result has been the widespread elimination of entire populations of shorebirds on those islands.
Modern fox farming has grown in popularity due to its increased efficiency and claims that it is more humane than trapping. Allegations of stress due to extreme overcrowding in the farms demonstrates that the argument is by no means one sided. Nevertheless, a quarter of all fox pelts from North America are now supplied by farms, and other regions of the world also carry out this practice.
There´s no easy answer regarding the ethics of the fur industry. When one weighs animal cruelty and the environmental impact of fur farms against a human need for cultural preservation and jobs, it´s very easy to get muddled. Add to that the fact that fur ranchers and trappers frequently hurl accusations of cruelty at one another, while comparing themselves to members of the much more respected meat industries and things become even more confused. Regardless of one´s opinions, it is a very emotional issue that is difficult to argue civilly and intelligently (see how long you can maintain a thread on the subject on Usenet without it degrading into a flame war). For my part, I simply choose not to buy the products offered. It is the consumer who supports the ranchers, trappers and fashion designers, and despite spirited philosophical debate, it is ultimately the individual who will decide the fate of the fur industry.
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